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Hackers, magic and the problem of understanding too much

Leila Johnston
October 26, 2011

Hackers, magic and the problem of understanding too much

A talk about the impulse to hack and the impulse to demystify, and how these relate to interfaces. We're always thinking: what's possible?

Leila Johnston

October 26, 2011


  1. Leila Johnston Copywriter at Made by Many Creator of book

    + interactive iPhone app Enemy of Chaos Editor of Hackers! quarterly Write about hacking for WIRED UK Wednesday, 26 October 2011
  2. The 9 ways in which you may astonish me Production

    Vanish Transformation (vanish + production) Restoration Teleportation Escape Levitation Penetration Prediction Wednesday, 26 October 2011
  3. Impossibility inversely correlates with interestingness Interest level Impossibleness Survive for

    2 months without water in a glass box over the Thames ‘Find the lady’ Wednesday, 26 October 2011
  4. Magic’s restraint helps to keep the puzzle alive It’s got

    rules about how we can interact with it, a bit like a game. The most intriguing magic surrounds itself with a buffer of possibilities. The fun is in the guessing and mystery. When something is patently impossible we lose interest. Wednesday, 26 October 2011
  5. The joy of magic is not about the impossible ...which

    in itself, is a bit boring. It doesn’t stimulate the imagination. Impossibility is a dead end. Wednesday, 26 October 2011
  6. Which one’s more interesting? With interfaces, education and accessibility are

    at odds with each other. Wednesday, 26 October 2011
  7. Devices have stopped teaching us about their workings. They’ve gone

    quiet. Is that slightly sinister? Featureless interfaces are magic mirrors. They show what you’d like to think is going on. They’re Doctor Who’s psychic paper. What you see isn’t what you get... Wednesday, 26 October 2011
  8. Even when you feel you’ve got to the bottom of

    it, you haven’t. There’s always further to go into the machine. There’s always more to not understand. Delving into the invisible depths just turns up more abstractions. Wednesday, 26 October 2011
  9. Interfaces intercept things you can’t understand. Because you can’t handle

    the truth. Machines used to let you talk to them in their language. Now they talk to you in your language. But they’re still just a brain in a jar. Wednesday, 26 October 2011
  10. I want to talk to machines Show me how the

    trick works Wednesday, 26 October 2011
  11. Hackers and magicians both work with the possible-but-unlikely, in practical

    ways • Making • Subverting • Inventing • Asking: what’s possible, but seems like it shouldn’t be? • What’s the expected thing to do with this equipment? What’s unlikely? Hackers What’s unlikely? Magicians What’s possible? Wednesday, 26 October 2011
  12. The hacker impulse is to undo extreme mystification... Open Source,

    sharing code Hack Days Retrocoding & retro-gaming Breaking, playing and understanding Authenticity Keeping track of every step & piece of work Wednesday, 26 October 2011
  13. “Geeks like open source, but even when I’m shown how

    something’s done, I can’t always do it myself” – Duncan Gough, creative technologist But seeing behind the curtain is not the same as understanding Wednesday, 26 October 2011
  14. Hackers understand enough to want to understand more Hackers interrupt

    the machine-user relationship of designed interfaces. Magicians maintain interest through moderated impossibility. Interfaces, like magicians, make you feel like you understand. But seeing everything won’t help you understand, either. When magic and technology are intriguing it’s because they’re tantalisingly out of reach. Wednesday, 26 October 2011